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Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia

3.44  ·  Rating details ·  516 ratings  ·  101 reviews
In the tradition of Brain on Fire and When Breath Becomes Air, Gerda Saunders' Memory's Last Breath is an unsparing, beautifully written memoir--a true-life Still Alice that captures Saunders' experience as a fiercely intellectual person living with the knowledge that her brain is betraying her. Saunders' book is uncharted territory in the writing on dementia, a diagnosis ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published June 13th 2017 by Hachette Books
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Average rating 3.44  · 
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3.5 Stars

” And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life.”
--Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

A now retired scientist, Gerda Saunders was 61 when she was diagnosed with early onset dementia, more specifically - micro-vascular disease. This memoir is her thoughts, fears, frustrations over the following years, the affect it had on her, her husband, her children, and dai
“Our family’s experience in comparing individual memories is congruent to my finding that the brain refreshes the ‘truth’ every time you retell.”

The author remembers a spectacular event from her childhood when a very fat death adder was discovered and killed and a whole lot of babies burst out! Not something you’re likely to forget, eh? She told the story in a straightforward manner, and I wondered why.

Then she contacted her siblings and others who were either on the scene or who had been told
Feb 25, 2018 rated it it was ok
I read this book because it was recommended to me by a friend as a book to do with Alzheimer's and I hope she will forgive me that I can't write a good review. I really disliked the author. I thought she was a dyed-in-the-wool pro=Apartheid racist who liked to think of herself as a liberal. It is, especially for a South African Boer who has emigrated to the US, politically correct to identify as non-racist. However, her writing gives her away. It is not enough to quote Maya Angelou or talk about ...more
Jul 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: netgalley, nonfiction
3.5 stars

So, after reading this, I've got very mixed feelings about this book. Overall, it's an amazing journal of what it means when a 61 year old woman is diagnosed with a form of dementia. Of course, it hit home especially hard for me as we are basically the same age. And whom among us doesn't have those moments of forgetfulness that strike fear into our hearts? But to have them over and over and realize it's not just the odd occurrence. It's my major fear.

Saunders hits some nails on the hea
Sep 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I received this book in a GoodReads giveaway and will be passing on to family members before donating to our public library. Beautiful, informative and touching memoir about a most heartbreaking and difficult subject - dementia. This one hits particularly close to home for me as my vibrant, action-oriented, driven 89 year old dad has suffered from dementia since 2007. I would categorize this book as a must-read for anyone who has been recently diagnosed with or has a loved one who suffers from a ...more
Canadian Reader
Memory’s Last Breath is not exactly the book of field notes its subtitle suggests. Yes, it contains some qualitative written observations about Saunders’s decline in cognitive function as she goes about her daily life, and yes, these do assist the reader in understanding the lived phenomenon of the disease process. However, the author also includes a number of miniature essays on neuroscience topics, including brief bits about the discipline’s history, an overview of the lobes of the brain, some ...more
Angie Boyter
Jun 21, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: didn-t-finish
Disappointing. I picked this up after hearing the author on NPR, so I expected to like it but threw in the towel about halfway through.
It is actually 13 essays about various aspects of her dementia, which is a wise choice of structure for someone with her problem. She talked of the difficulty of writing and how long it took her, so she might not have been able to craft a book-length work.
I was not getting nearly as much insight into her experiences with dementia or her progression as I expected,
Shirley Freeman
Gerda Saunders was a scientist, an intellectual, a wife, mother and writer when at age 61 she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. For the next several years, she was able to document what was happening to her brain and how it affected her every day life. This erudite memoir is a combination of research explained and daily struggles noted. Saunders does not complain about the unfairness of it all. She goes about her business doing the best she can under the circumstances. Her husband and f ...more
The human tendency to find order in chaos causes us to fill in conspicuous gaps or loose ends so that everything fits into a story and...put into context. p 145

The self divides the minute we start looking for it. p224

In this amazing and moving study, GS attempts to fill in the ever widening gaps in her understanding by documenting her own creeping dementia. Presenting the latest theories on the subject, she intersperses scientific opinions with philosophical musings, social experiments, and her
Kellie Reynolds
Sep 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
The author was diagnosed with microvascular dementia a few days before her 61st birthday.

I expected the book to be about her life after her diagnosis. Although there are many passages that document her life and thoughts after the diagnosis, the book also includes a lot of information about her past. There is also information about the brain, memory, and stories about others who suffered from dementia.

At first I did not understand the rationale for including long passages about her childhood. T
Feb 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, 2018
An amazing and revealing look at both a life and the loss of mental faculties. Saunders combines tales from her past with notes from the journal she began taking after being diagnosed with dementia. She is exceptionally open, at times shockingly so.

Memory's Last Breath is a mixture of autobiography and a chronicle of her mental deterioration. The book is touching, heart-warming, sad, and informative.
Sian Lile-Pastore
Nov 04, 2017 rated it liked it
I am so impressed that Gerda Saunders wrote this book about her dementia - it's an amazing achievement. I also think it's a really valuable book in understanding dementia and understanding how people with dementia feel and cope. If you know or work with people with dementia this is a really helpful read.

Aside from all that, as a reading experience, it didn't quite come together for me - the writing is fine, but isn't beautiful, the structure is also ok, but sometimes disjointed. There were parts
Erik Caswell
Aug 29, 2017 rated it liked it
sort of feel a bit middle of the road bout this one. love ((and will be taking with me in my dealings at the library and more importantly w my mother..)) being let in to how someone feels in the pre slippings of dementia and how big a loss it is for them. it's important to hold that in dealings which can be equally sad frustrating and draining for the people around them. appreciated even more so the discussions on the brain, its anatomy, how it reflects the experience of dementia. an eating away ...more
Cyndi Beane-Henry
Jul 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone
Recommended to Cyndi by: Amazon Vine
This has been my favorite read so far this summer. A poignant look, through the first person eye of the writer, at dementia. As a geriatric nurse for 30 years, I have seen it come to many, many people. Slowly it attacks the mind. Until eventually, the person that houses the mind, is just a shell. The mind is gone.

Where does the mind wonder to in these individuals? How much of the world around them are they aware of?

These are all things the author contemplates. And she expounds on the way to beco
Adam Terrell
Aug 13, 2018 rated it did not like it
Probably a fine memoir, but I felt too "outside-looking-in" with all her South Africa references and inside jokes and shocking lack of writing relating to her own dementia. I was hoping to glean more about an individual's experience with dementia and this book provides a simplistic overview of a lot of well-established neuroscience and little personal perspective beyond one's on pre-dementia life. Like I said, probably a fine book in it's own right, but not one that is necessarily about dementia ...more
David Jay
Jul 14, 2017 rated it liked it
Gerda is a professor diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and this is basically a collection of essays about her life. Some are beautiful and her thoughts on what is to come are heartbreaking and profound. Some are boring.
Jaclyn Day
Jul 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Heartbreaking on so many levels, personal and otherwise. But still, her strength and vivacity comes through on every page.
Melanee Parker
Oct 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Gerda Saunders reflects on her life before and in the early years after her dementia diagnosis in her early sixties. She is surprisingly stoic as she talks about her shrinking sense of self, the idea of slowly becoming one of the “living dead,” her plans for an assisted suicide, and her feelings on why this option should be more accessible to people in her situation.

I was impressed by her willingness to confront the reality of her condition as she and her family made some critical decisions abou
Jan 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
After the author gets a diagnosis of early on-set dementia, she decides to keep a journal about the changes she experiences in her life because of this. In this book she writes about these changes, discusses the brain & its mysteries and various end-of-life issues.
I was interested in reading this book because, first, I am 78 and secondly, though most of my family members have had long-lived lives without any but normal older age mental issues, what if I do? I wanted first-hand information on how
Luigi Benetton
Jun 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I recently finished this memoir of somebody who is losing her self to dementia. It is an amazing “insider“ account. If you know people going through dementia, this book may provide understanding and solace.
Sep 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
In this memoir, Saunders delves deep into her experiences with dementia and the effect its progression has on her loved ones, on her memory, on her daily activities, and on her sense of self. Combining personal recollections from her life (and examples of how she's attempted to resolve her own uncertainty about the veracity of these memories),"field notes" about her daily experiences with the symptoms of dementia, and detailed information about the brain anatomy and physiology as they relate to ...more
Sep 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Memory's Last Breath
(Gerda Saunders) 2017

Could one call a book which deals with a ten-year-long demise of brain function into 90% dementia, a roller coaster ride? For me, it was!

Gerda Saunders' ability to showcase her own intellect and her understanding of the medical problem she has, is mind-boggling. Her report of losing not only her memory, but also her ability to live her daily life, is heart-rendering.

Yet her writing style is nearly clinical: Mere facts are presented. Mere examples of da
Oct 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was a hard book to read because of the topic. I can't imagine writing a book about dementia, much less writing a book about me having dementia and how it has affected me and my family. I don't know how much Gerda Saunders' editors had to rewrite this book, but just the fact that she was able to research and write a book with a diagnosis of dementia amazed me.
There were several things that I made notes on from this book. The first was the part about how some African societies divide humans i
Aug 22, 2017 rated it liked it
I expected a lot more from this book. At times, it is very insightful about the experience of mild to moderate dementia, and living with the clear prospect of severe dementia. The author is also compelling in her stories of her childhood in South Africa, her relationship with her husband, and with her mother, who also became demented. However, the author's family stories are often uninteresting to anyone outside the family. At the very end, she gives a list of questions she would like her childr ...more
Jan 25, 2018 rated it liked it
Gerda Saunders writes of her growing up in South Africa, childhood memories, current experiences as her dementia progresses, and some scientific information. How do memories get maintained? Opposite from PTSD where things are not forgotten, this is where memories can not be recalled - the explanation is in the "bricks and mortar of the brain".
Even long-term memories aren't guaranteed survival but are on the verge of vanishing. Memories being rebuilt by accessing them are, or can be, changed in t
Sep 05, 2018 rated it liked it
This book is more of a generic memoir than you might expect: a surprising (to me) portion of the book relates more to the "memory" part than to the "last breath" or "dementia" parts of the title. Much of the book is about Saunders's childhood in South Africa or other reminiscences of a life that is interesting enough if you're into memoirs, but not particularly on-point if you're here to learn about the dementia side of things. Indeed, she's as interested in semi-philosophical ruminations about ...more
Feb 04, 2018 rated it liked it
“From this deliberately low-tech perspective, Susanna was undergoing some form of mental diminishment characteristic of old age, in which her behaviour would determine the extent of assistance she would need. And that is how her second childhood played out without a name.” Page 6

“Or maybe, like Frida Kahlo, I have resolved to turn “madness” into a desirable state? A curtain behind which “I could do whatever I liked”? Kahlo: I’d arrange flowers, all day long, I’d paint; pain, love and tenderness,
Mar 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I picked up this book after I saw an article about the author in our local Utah newspaper. This definitely reads more like a memoir or a series of personal essays than specific notes on or experiences with dementia. I expected to read more personal, raw, painful journal entries. Even so, I really enjoyed reading about the author's life in South Africa, about her relationship with her husband, and also about her family's transition to living in Utah. None of that seems to have anything to do with ...more
Chris Beal
Dec 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
This unique book is a successful attempt by a woman developing dementia to describe her experience. The book tells the story of Sanders' interesting life, but the tale is interspersed with italicized sections that describe increasing difficulty in handling everyday events and responsibilities. Saunders discovers that even though she has trouble remembering how to do simple tasks, she is still articulate and thus able to write out her thoughts and experience. She had been a professor and surmises ...more
Nov 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A very brave book requiring courage to read & think about. Gerda Saunders was born & grew up in apartheid South Africa in an Africaans speaking family who lived over extended stretches of time in very rural farm surrounds and in urban environments. Later married & starting a family, she decided that emigration (to the US) was a preferable route for raising a family. They moved to Salt Lake City, Utah where she took a PhD in literature, worked as a corporate writer & later returned to academia in ...more
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GERDA SAUNDERS grew up in South Africa, where she obtained a B.S. in Math and Chemistry from the University of Pretoria. After working as a research scientist at the South African Atomic Energy Board for three years, she taught Science and Math at Kempton Park (Afrikaans) High school and Math and Physics at the Kempton Park Technical Institute. In 1984, she settled in Utah with her husband Peter a ...more

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